Preparing for Field Data Collection
Preparing for field data collection involves preparing clear protocols and guidelines for each component of collecting data using field surveys. The main components of field data collection are timelines, IRB approvals, instrument design, coding surveys, and enumerator training. Each of these components must be carried out based on best practices in field data collection. Therefore, the research team must establish clear channels for regular communication among all participants - principal investigators (PIs), field coordinators (FCs), survey firm, government agencies, and enumerators.
- The research team can either conduct the survey directly, or indirectly through a survey firm.
- Spending more time on the preparation leads to better quality data.
- Plan for field data collection at least 6 months in advance of the survey launch.
- Field data can be collected using Open Data Kit (ODK)-based tools like CAPI and CAFE.
- With the availability of specialized survey firms, and standardized field management practices, it is important for researchers to follow best practices to collect field data.
Preparing the timeline for a field survey involves allocating sufficient time for each stage of the survey process - instrument design, pilot, obtaining approval, procurement, drafting protocols, and training. The research team should keep the following points in mind when creating a timeline for fieldwork (field data collection):
- Timing of data collection. Make sure that data collection happens during the relevant time of the year. For example, data on seasonal farm yields in a region should be collected after the harvesting season.
- Plan backwards. It often helps to plan backwards from the end date of the survey, and decide the start date based on this. However, include some extra buffer time in the timeline for delays that might come up in the data collection process. For example, if a lot of the respondents are not available initially, the interviewers may have to visit them on another day.
- Keep aside more time for panel surveys. Always allow more time for surveys that involve panel data, that is, when the same data is collected several times from the same person or area. This is because tracking participants from earlier survey rounds can take some time. An example of such a case is study that seeks to assess the impact of a micro-finance program on farm yields every 6 months for 3 years in a given area.
There are several steps involved in preparing and finalizing a survey instrument (or questionnaire). The impact evaluation team (or research team) should allocate sufficient time for each of the steps.
- Draft and pilot. Design the questionnaire based on the context. If a similar data collection process was conducted in the same region, the research team should check if they can adapt the questionnaire used in that study. Pilot the instrument to receive feedback on aspects like the wording of questions. Use this feedback to improve the content of the questionnaire.
- Translate. Hire professional translators to translate the questionnaire. These translators must be fluent in all local languages of the study area, as well as the language of the research team. It is very important to ensure version control, that is, keep track of different versions during the translation process.
- Program. After the translations are finalized, program the questionnaire. Check the code and perform test rounds multiple times.
- Finalize. Conduct a data-focused pilot to ensure that all questions appear in the correct order. Note down how long it takes on average to finish answering the survey. Finalize the instrument for launching.
An institutional review board (IRB) is a an organisation that reviews, approves, disapproves, or recommends changes in surveys that involve human subjects (target population). IRB approvals are important to protect the rights of human subjects. The research team must seek approval at each of the following stages:
- Initial approval. Seek approval at the beginning of the study, before any research activity involving human participants begins.
- Amendment approval. Seek approval before changing any element of the study including design, protocols, or even informed consent norms.
- Continuing approval. Seek continuing approval every year, even if no element of the survey has changed. This is because risks to participants may evolve through time. Therefore, the research team must report on the progress of the study which received the initial or amendment approval.
Discussing and agreeing on a set of survey protocols is just as important as finalizing the survey instrument. These guidelines describe the responsibilities of each member of the survey process - impact evaluation team, survey firm, interviewers. Examples of some of the things that protocols deal with are criteria for respondent selection, criteria for sampling, and data quality checks. All protocols should be piloted, and then clearly written out for use during enumerator training.
Procuring a survey firm involves drafting a terms of reference (TOR), and preparing a budget for each component of the survey process. The research team must carefully prepare these procurement-related documents.
- Survey firm TOR. The survey firm terms of reference (TOR) defines the structure of the project and breaks down the responsibilities of all participants in the data collection process. The TOR lists the scope of work and deliverables (expected outcomes), and allows the research team to monitor the performance of the survey firm once the data collection starts.
- Survey budget/proposal. The survey firm that is hired to conduct the field survey should submit a budget that allocates funds to cover salaries, equipment costs, incentives for respondents, and other administrative costs. This should also include country-specific costs, such as taxes.
The research team should hire experience enumerators and supervisors who have prior experience in field data collection. The number of field teams (people directly involved in collecting field data) that are hired in a survey depend on factors like average duration of the interview, sample size, and number of rounds of the survey. For example, if a survey requires a follow-up survey after the baseline (or the first round), the research team should hire more field teams.
Team setup and roles
As the the number of field teams and/or the size of each field team increases, it becomes more challenging to monitor the field implementation (data collection process). Based on best practices, each field team should have 4-6 enumerators and 1 supervisor. There should also be a scrutinizer in the case of a pen-and-paper interview (PAPI), or a data entry clerk in case of a computer-assisted field entry (CAFE) survey.
The roles of various participants of the data collection process as are follows:
- Enumerator. Conduct household interviews
- Supervisor. Manage teams of enumerators, check surveys for completeness (no missing data), keep a record of completed interviews, and ensure smooth communication between different teams. Can also perform back checks.
- Scrutinizer. Read through the questionnaire for a pen-and-paper interview (PAPI) in detail to identify errors or inconsistencies. After approving the filled-out questionnaires, share them with the data entry team.
- Back checker. - Administers back check surveys.
- Research analyst. In case of (CAPI), they develop a template (format) for collecting data electronically. Export and review incoming data every day, and ensure that the data matches field logs, that is, the records of respondents who have already been interviewed .
- Data entry coordinator. Develop forms for electronically entering data, and coordinate the work of the entire data entry team. Export and review the incoming data everyday.
- Data entry clerk. Enter data during a computer-assisted field entry (CAFE) survey into the electronic form developed by the data entry coordinator.
- Field manager. Plan and oversee the entire process of field data collection and manage all field teams. Draft the logistics and budget for the field work, and act as primary liaison (point-of-contact) with the impact evaluation team.
- Field coordinator. The field coordinators (FCs) should also work closely with the survey firm and government agencies (where relevant) to decide important aspects such as the team setup and hiring criteria. The research team must include these in the survey firm terms of reference (TOR).
Clear communication protocols are important to ensure that everyone involved in the data collection can communicate and discuss any concerns they may face. It is therefore important to draft protocols to address the following aspects:
- First point of contact. Make sure enumerators and supervisors know who is their first point of contact on the team.
- Contact details of respondents. Make one or two people responsible for providing these details to enumerators everyday.
- Transport credit for enumerators. Ensure that enumerators have the funds available for traveling in order to conduct in-person interviews.
- Sharing collected data. Specify the frequency for sharing data- daily, alternate days, or weekly. Also specify exactly what data the enumerators need to share.
- Method of sharing data. Specify how enumerators share the data they collect.
- Monitoring enumerators. Specify how a supervisor can monitor enumerator performance, and parameters they will use to judge performance. For example, number of interviews completed in a day.
- Enumerator feedback. Specify how to convey issues identified during data quality checks to the enumerators.
- Escalating issues. Specify whom the enumerator should contact if a respondent requests an escalation or requests clarity on a question. For example, it helps to use an instant messaging (IM) application to communicate with enumerators, or have frequent in-person meetings with them, if feasible.
- Backup. Always have a plan B (and C) in place in case of problems like transport issues, or if the respondent is not at home at the time of visit.
Sometimes it is possible that the respondent is either not available at the time of the enumerator's visit, or someone other than the respondent is at home. It is important to provide clear protocols for these situations. In cases where some respondents are not available, tracking sheets become very important. These are forms that the enumerator can fill. A tracking sheet can be used to track:
- Respondent details. Names and addresses of all respondents in the sample.
- Status of survey. Whether the survey could be completed or not.
- Number of visits. If the respondent was not at home on the first visit.
In cases where someone other than the respondent is at home, the enumerator can do the following:
- Take an appointment. The enumerator can ask the person who was at the specified address to indicate when the respondents might be available. This can help the supervisor judge if another visit is feasible or not.
- Replace respondent. It is a good idea to have a pool from which new respondents can be picked to take the survey.
Data quality and security
Monitoring data quality is one of the most important parts of data collection. Poor quality data can at best reduce the effectiveness of a policy intervention, and at worst require a repeat of the entire data collection process. Therefore the research team must prepare clear guidelines for the following:
- Type of data checks. Conduct regular back checks and high frequency checks.
- Frequency of data checks. Specify how often the supervisor should conduct data checks.
- Feedback method. Specify method for communicating feedback to the enumerators after a data check. Decide on this before any data collection starts.
It is equally important to specify clear protocols for data security to ensure no data is lost and no personally identifiable information (PII) is made public. This includes encrypting the survey form and providing guidelines to enumerators about how to share data. Create a confidentiality agreement that each enumerator signs to ensure that personal details of respondents do not get used for any other purposes.
The purpose of enumerator training is to ensure that all participants of the data collection process should be familiar with the Survey Protocols and the content of the instrument. Keep the following things in mind.
- Duration and structure. The duration and structure of the training will depend on the complexity and length of the survey.
- Plan in advance. Plan the training well in advance, and make sure the enumerator manual is complete and up-to-date.
- Enumerator selection. Always train more enumerators than will be required for the field work. At the end of the training select the best enumerators for the data collection.
- Topics. Each project will have slightly different training requirements but should at least cover the context of the survey, core questionnaire modules (or sections), interviewing skills, and familiarity with technical equipment like phones or tablets.
- Practice interviews. Before starting the process of field data collection, make sure all enumerators practice interviewing at least twice.